chronic naïveté

It is difficult for an old white guy to write about racism in America when so many who look more or less like myself are Trumpeting views that are odious to sensible humans of any age. The screaming headlines, however, demand that the conscientious denounce the nascent viral hatred threatening to consume centuries of human rights progress.

If you have not noticed yet, this is getting out of hand.

Though the current intellectual conflagration is certainly nothing new, it does freshly greave the soul. I honestly thought in my youth that when my generation finally died off, we would take most of this hate with us. Turns out that I was fantastically optimistic about the human condition.

It is understandable that many Millennials fail to appreciate America’s history of dalliance at the edges of fascist thought. If you did not grow up around active Ku Klux Klan dens and John Birch Society displays at the state fair, it is hard to fathom the grasp that hate holds on the minds of some who walk our streets in the guise of ordinary Americans.

Sadly, such things, while considered extreme by most, are well within the memory of the living. Before David Duke, there was George Lincoln Rockwell. Before Alt-Right, there was White Power. Before Trump, there was Woodrow Wilson.  Like our ancestors who waged Civil Rights Wars, our posterity is calling for us to respond.

This means you and me.

But, at the risk of exposing my chronic naïveté, I do still see signs of hope. It is clear that Millennials are far more engaged on this crucial conversation than any generation before. As the old school white nationalists die off, the Confederate flags are finally coming down, as are the white supremacist websites. Amidst the conflict and outrage, the energy in the air instills optimism that America will navigate back to its historic progressive track.

Yet while so much of this response to evil is encouraging, I fear that the wholesale rush to expunge our nation of historic artifacts is a misguided overreaction. While we have long recognized “flag waiving” to be an overt act in celebration of the ideas symbolized by the flag, memorials established in a time past are qualitatively different. Often, these memories carved in granite are just enough remembrance to provide reproof and instruction to today.

Of course, we cannot ignore the obvious truth that many of these monuments where placed with overt racist intent. Monuments to Nathan Bedford Forrest erected sufficiently long after the Civil War as to have no possible melancholic content come immediately to mind.

As much as the removal of monuments to klansmen is to be celebrated, I am afraid that in classic American style we are already overreacting. In the wake of the tragic events in Charlottesville last weekend, the Maryland Governor has announced an effort to remove a statue of Roger B. Taney from the grounds of the State House in Annapolis. While Taney’s infamous opinion in the Dred Scott decision informs our outrage, it is important to realize that Taney’s tenure as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court was more nuanced than this single decision. Contemporary ardent critics of the Dred Scott decision took a different view of the man who was a southerner who freed his own slaves.

Even adjusting for context, tolerating a memorial to Roger B. Taney, or perhaps even Jefferson Davis, is far different than enduring the waiving of a Nazi flag.

Amid the fever pitch of Twitter bomb excesses, it is important to remember too that none of us are free from the stain of the misdeeds of our ancestors. Travel far enough back in your family tree and even the recently oppressed will find ancestry on the wrong side of the oppression table. Though some people do not have to traverse that tree as far as others, it is time for Americans to agree to be something different while still recognizing both the gifts and burdens bequeathed by history.

Moving past those burdens is, of course, difficult. Are we to remove the monuments to my hero George Washington because he owned slaves and thereby ignore his singular role in advancing human rights? What about those honoring Benjamin Franklin? Should they be cast down because he owned two slaves before freeing them and becoming a founder of the abolition movement? Should we shutter the doors of the Genghis Grill because so many Chinese Americans are quite understandably offended by the reference to the Great Khan?

These questions are not easy.

Fortunately, however, identifying the general principles to guide us in answering these difficult questions is easy. Variations on the golden rule wander the breadth of philosophy from East to West and the breadth of respectability from Jesus to Bill and Ted. The golden rule is as profound as it is simple and has obvious application in our discordant discourse.

A uniquely relevant expression of this universal golden axiom can be found in the writings of one of my other heroes. After escaping slavery and becoming an important leader in the American abolition movement, Frederick Douglass penned a public letter to his former master that should be required reading for all Americans. It is worth reading in its entirety both because of its profound content and its eloquent articulation of the approach we desperately need today. In his famous letter, after extensively critiquing slavery and his former master’s role in that peculiar institution, Douglass said:

I will now bring this letter to a close, you shall hear from me again unless you let me hear from you. I intend to make use of you as a weapon with which to assail the system of slavery—as a means of concentrating public attention on the system, and deepening their horror of trafficking in the souls and bodies of men… In doing this I entertain no malice towards you personally. There is no roof under which you would be more safe than mine, and there is nothing in my house which you might need for your comfort, which I would not readily grant. Indeed, I should esteem it a privilege, to set you an example as to how mankind ought to treat each other.

I am your fellow man, but not your slave,

FREDERICK DOUGLASS

Douglass wrote such words to a man who had laid stripes to his back.

Given the complete lack of effective leadership and abundant political posturing during this media maelstrom, the words of Douglass ring true. Do not get caught up in the hate gentle readers. Instead, set an example as to how mankind ought to treat each other. Instead, find a way forward together rather than wielding the past to drive us apart.

Instead, be excellent to each other.

brussels sprouts tweets

In my blogging-free decade before recently resuming, news consumption continued to evolve. Though Facebook was nascent and Twitter had yet to launch ten years ago, the trend leading down to 140 characters was well established. Television’s ascendancy had already entrenched “sound bite” in our vocabulary. I blogged about how the new manufactured reality insulates media consumers from real experience and knowledge. Indeed, it appears that as the newspapers get ever thinner and the paywalls get more robust, actual content is attaining heirloom status.

And if you do not already suffer from ADD, most news websites induce it.

Brussel_Sprouts_Tweet

The tragedy of pervasive media induced ADD is that important subjects are rarely discussed in depth. Unless one is part of the functionally literate cadre, like Disenfranchised Curmudgeon readers, your social media news diet consists more of headlines about the reaction of politicians to important events than it does the events themselves. Nothing illustrates this better than the coverage of the recent terrorist attacks in Brussels.

It is most unsurprising that the Bloviating Billionaire sees this as more evidence that we need to ban Muslims, ramp up torture and compare wall sizes. In another more literate epoch, one might reasonably expect a more substantive treatment from other political gladiators.

Don’t hold your breath waiting for that this year.

Our political discourse is sadly obsessed with the offensive and inane—substance has no chance. Cruz managed to vault the lofty offensiveness of even Trump by suggesting that we lock down Muslim neighborhoods lest they become radicalized. Kasich effectively dodged offensiveness by managing a press release of 185 words that said absolutely nothing.

Since the GOP has famously bought the crazy franchise this election cycle, it might be reasonable to expect more from the Democrats, but they too disappoint. President-almost-elect Clinton did little better, in spite of her alleged policy wonk cred, choosing to highlight the GOP candidate stupidity while reminding us of her dubious claim to “experience”. Proving his suitability for the content free milieu that the candidates thrive in this year, Bernie was predictably more articulate and platitude laden yet ultimately gave us no more insight into his view on foreign policy than any of the other candidates.

This candidate reaction checklist makes one thing clear: these somnolent weasels use their 140 characters to say nothing.

Well, it would be “nothing” except that the English words are coming out of their mouths or off the fingers of their tweet managers seem to effectively rile up the masses. Or at least the portion failing to recognize that tuning in to this media based conversation is one of those rare human activities that will leave you less intelligent than when you began.

This is a time when we badly need intelligence. The Brussels attacks raise many of the most important issues that face the United States and the World. The media talking heads continually tell me how smart the President-almost-elect is and as much as her political cronyism quashes any voting impulse, I would relish a policy throw-down. That of course will not happen either as she walks the tightrope of leveraging the President’s voter base without sharing the blame for his administration’s foreign policy missteps.

For two administrations spanning almost 15 years and both major political parties, we have waged a “war” on “terror” that has primarily produced a new generation of alienated radicals. We are in desperate need of a new approach. The candidates deny you the transparency of advancing a substantive vision because they deem occupying the Oval Office to be more valuable than articulating a coherent policy agenda for voters to judge.

They are not open because We the People vote our guts, not our brains.

They know sound bites produce votes.

Substance produces Unfollow button presses.

So, as we forge ahead into a future without a map, are you going to be surprised by the next big terrorist event? Are you going to vote for one of these candidates that treat you no different than the functionally illiterate citizens that have, due to your acquiescence, become the only voters that matter? Are you going to vote for the lesser of the evils though that too is an evil choice?

Of course you will. Why waste a vote?

smells like trump spirit

It is said that the success of Smells Like Team Spirit stole Kurt Cobain’s soul. Nirvana’s platinum-plated, angst saturated teen anthem is an eerie allegory for the Trumpian appeal to the testosterone fueled rage of the disenfranchised. My own fear is that Trump Spirit, even if less successful, will consume America’s soul in the decades that follow November 2016.

The hyperbolic headlines denouncing Trump for his role in the thus far muted violence surrounding his campaign rallies continue to miss the real story. Trump, apparently, is a Hitler or perhaps a Mussolini. Honestly all you hyperventilating media wags, he lacks the intelligence to aspire to such infamy. Heck, he isn’t even a David Duke, much less a an heir to 20th century fascism.

Trump is merely a symptom of a larger problem.

Honestly, I’m getting a bit tired of hearing, thinking and writing about Trump. Yet, like you, I am transfixed by the spectacle as I endeavor to explain this putative apocalypse to myself. It is especially hard wrapping one’s mind around a misogynistic, bigoted megalomaniac having an excellent chance of being the next POTUS.

But a good look at Bernie Sanders helps.

I’m far from alone when I suggest that Making America Great Again and Feeling The Bern are tapping the same well of pent up anger. Decades of low voter turn-out have mostly incorrectly imputed apathy to the disenfranchised. The “politically savvy” crowd, those reliable Red and Blue jersey voters, are perplexed by those who are undecided between Sanders and Trump. But it isn’t complicated: they are sick of the partisan machinery.

There are more of us disenfranchised than you think.

It has been over two years since Nick Hanauer issued his famous pitchfork warning on the TED stage. While he was certainly not the first to call attention to the growing unrest engendered by the profound income inequality growth of recent decades, he was one of the most engaging. His talk is worth your time if you have not seen it. Sanders too speaks about this passionately, but in his inimitable way, so does Trump. Sanders harangues us in direct terms, but even when he regales us on social justice, it is still all about the wealth gap: in 21st Century America, money is a proxy for pretty much everything.

The Trumpian appeal is usually much less overt. His campaign slogan implicitly asks the question: America isn’t very great for you, is it? We’ll build a big beautiful wall. Like Sanders, Trump too is in the political blame game stoking resentment against outsiders rather than billionaires. And of course everyone hates politicians.

Am I the only one who hears Cobain’s angry voice echoing in the background here?

I feel stupid and contagious,
Here we are now; entertain us…

The trend of substituting form for substance is a powerful one. Eleven years ago, I wrote about the post-modern trend in Presidential politics:

As reprehensible as all of this hypocrisy may be, the greater concern must still be the trend. The stage has been set where propaganda will likely get the seal of approval by the American people. If this administration and the one before it has taught us nothing else, we know that Presidents learn from the political successes of their predecessors. And if, as is likely, the propaganda thing gets added to the essential toolkit of the executive branch, the next administration will be unconstrained in ways we have scarcely imagined as possible in America.

While I share the fear of what the next four years will bring, that which truly terrifies is that which comes next.

Here we are at next.

Yesterday, Charles Krauthammer echoed my own fears that perhaps the pitchforks are coming, pointing out that the history of political thuggery is owned as much by the extreme left as it is the right. And when you plug in the Sander’s talk of revolution, this is getting downright creepy.

I myself am getting bit angry too. The anger is because I have so often had ugly names cast my way for pointing these things out. Calling into question the artificial two party political axis our politicians and media thrive upon is considered an apostasy of the highest order apparently, while calling for revolution or riot under the auspices of being a major party candidate—that’s OK with many partisans as long as it is their team. While I do not view widespread political violence as likely, as long as politicians like Trump throw around intemperate words skirting the edges of inciting violence, I can no longer rule it out. Cleveland 2016 may be more like 1968 Chicago than we care to imagine.

America’s angst is real. Partisan politics and the devolution in media from real content to plastic forms conspire against us. Our challenge is to collect our wits and rediscover who we are in America’s third century. The question is whether we will answer that calling or allow the political class to carry us into the abyss.

Much as Teen Spirit spoke to angst of that generation, this new spirit speaks to the angst of the disenfranchised. Three years after Nirvana’s anthem was a runaway success, Cobain, tormented by the challenges of success and heroine committed suicide. It is my hope and prayer that America’s addiction to sound bites does not lead it to a similar self-inflicted end.

After all, stupid IS contagious.

living in the eye of the storm

An old elementary school joke familiar to all is distressingly relevant to the tragic events unfolding in New Orleans. This schoolyard classic involves a vocabulary quiz, a revolving door and what was called a “fat woman” in a less politically correct time. The punch line was something to the affect that the door nearly dis-assed-her.

Sadly, that is probably the most thought most Americans have ever given to disaster planning.

Some of us are thinking about it. Big Business has been very active in what is known as business continuation planning for several decades. As a result of legislation imposing personal liability on Directors and Executives for failure to plan adequately and insurance premium rate pressure from property insurance underwriters, business has had little choice but to get serious about the future even in spite of the quarterly earnings focus. The 9/11 attack should have woke the rest of us up to the perils of catastrophic disasters and invoked a vigorous preparedness response.

What we got instead was a new ineffective bureaucracy, the Department of Homeland Security.

The failure of this Presidential administration to achieve any kind of readiness over the past four years could not be plainer than it is in the wake of Katrina. There has, of course, been copious coverage on the slow and poor emergency response from FEMA and other organizations charged to answer national distress calls. This is certainly an important topic and deserves substantial attention. There is a lot of information to digest there and I’m sure plenty of relevant stories yet to be told both of heroism in the face of inadequate resources and the incompetence which helped produce the situation. Steadfastly focused by the media on these juicy stories, the American people will as usual miss the greater significance of what is playing out before their eyes.

Missed entirely will be the big picture: the breakdown in social order that occurred when civilization ceased to exist. While the lurid facts of rape, robbery and irrational violence have made headlines, the broader implications deserve serious consideration.

Consider if you will the misfeasance of the government in allowing four years to pass without any serious effort to educate American citizens on how to react in disaster situations. Four years of rhetorical frothing without any apparent attempt to actually plan for the aftermath of an event of this scale.

I suppose that if this administration could not foresee the social breakdown caused by its military invasion of Iraq, it should not surprise us that they could not foresee that natural disasters could have the same effect here at home.

Immediately after 9/11, I remember discussions with a lot of people concerning what would happen if we have another 9/11 scale event. The number one concern in the minds of everybody I talked to was the prospect of civil unrest. The possibility of the total collapse of society around us is very real and this above all else should be what terrifies us about Katrina. Though the problem is both obvious and real, this administration has produced much noise and little else.

I for one am not so naïve as to attribute this mess to unforseeability. While the specific scenario that has permanently changed the face of the Crescent City was perhaps hard to detail, the risk of living below sea level on the Gulf of Mexico was well understood. When The Big One finally hits California we will probably call it unforeseeable no matter what the facts might say to the contrary.

I suppose that if you are one who can not foresee the inevitable large scale disasters of varying scope and nature, then perhaps you are also inclined to give the administration the benefit of the doubt on this one. I view recent history and history generally as teaching that mankind will continue to endure a succession of large scale disasters.

In my short span on this globe, we have had the New York City blackout, the Arab Oil Embargo, Hurricane Andrew, Mississippi River flooding, the San Francisco earth quake and 9/11. What these disasters are cumulatively showing us is that our social cohesion is at an all time low. And even were it not, anyone who has seen Deliverance can tell you that bad things can happen even in America when one is sufficiently removed from civilization. Or in the case of Katrina, when civilization ceases to exist.

Armed with ordinary schoolhouse knowledge, there is simply no excuse for not being better prepared. We live in an era that is truly on the edge in a more real way than at any time since the Great Depression. Thinking about a nuclear device detonated in Houston Harbor should give you serious pause as to the viability of America in the aftermath. Just follow the pipelines and see how quickly our world of material excess could go dark.

And this is just one scary scenario out of a multitude.

Viewed soberly it is clear that there is no substantive difference between what has happened in New Orleans as a result of Katrina and what would might have happened there in the event of a dirty bomb attack. Katrina has exposed how vulnerable America remains.

Unfortunately, this is no schoolyard and the joke is on you and me.

surgical strike: to provide for the common defense

I have been opining for some time that Homeland Defense is pretty much a joke in light of the lackadaisical attitude this administration takes toward border security. Not to mention container shipments at ports of entry. It is truly ridiculous that the US military cordons off entire nations while our home borders are said to be just too long to be protected.

Not that I am trivializing the magnitude of the task. I’m sure it is extraordinarily difficult and would require substantial resources to have something that approaches a secure border.

But in the context of the threats that have emerged in the last several years, I have trouble imagining what security issue could be more pressing. And while a few years back I had some sympathy with the notion that our borders were too long to be adequately protected, the progress of technology is making that argument increasingly hollow.

Undoubtedly I have little in common with the self-proclaimed Minutemen who have undertaken the task of defending our borders. If the accusations of vigilantism, bigotry or old-fashioned fascism turn out to be true, then I have even less in common with them than I already imagine. But still, I have to stand amazed that they are already having an impact.

According to the Associated Press, the Administration has finally today come out with plans to strengthen border protection. I can only expect that this will be one of a number of announcements that will be forthcoming in an effort to mitigate the damage to reputation being done by the Minutemen’s presence. I can only hope that unlike in other areas of political activity that perhaps this time there will be some substantive action. Action a bit quicker than the year 2008 would be nice too.

In the mean time, while I await the Government’s taking up of its constitutionally mandated task to provide for our defense, I will remain skeptical of claims of both virtue and depravity on the part of the Minutemen until the actual facts are in.

If the best does turn out to be true of them, however improbable that may be, then they deserve medals. But it would appear that even if the worst is true of them, they have performed for us a service for which we can all be thankful.

surgical strike: modern mendacity

It is encouraging to think that there is a burgeoning democratic reform movement afoot in Islam. That is the hopeful message of Thomas Friedman’s latest piece entitled Brave, Young and Muslim.

It is amazing to me that so many Americans do not seem to have even the slightest understanding of Islam and its history. More amazing still that so many Americans do not have any better understanding of their own history. I think if one looks thoughtfully at the progress of Western Civilization, you can see much of where we have been in what Islam is today.

It is easy to forget that our not so distant past harbored a lot of stuff that we do not comfortably claim as our own history. It was in the West after all that Galileo was jailed for nothing more than telling what he saw in his telescope. It was in the West that Albert Einstein had to flee his home for no other reason than being born of those descendants of Abraham that the Nazis chose as the objects of their hatred. And within the life times of much of the Disenfranchised Curmudgeon community we have seen even here in The Land of the Free a time when there were still separate drinking fountains for those born with unacceptable skin pigmentation.

The point is that the West had to have its Renaissance, Enlightenment and religious reformations along its hard climb to modernity. And the birth of Liberty came only at the ends of gun barrels and many centuries of slowly wresting power from the Monarchs. That we collectively undertook and survived those transforming movements is certainly to our credit.

But the attitude that is often heard that Islam is unsuitable for various institutions of modernity is certainly not to our credit. These attitudes are borne of a cultural arrogance that equals that of radical Muslim fundamentals. It is my firm belief that given time Islam will reform as has the other great religions of the World and that perhaps along the way an element or two of modern thought will be found rightfully worthy of their rejection.

I do not necessarily share Friedman’s belief that the time is now, but I certainly share his hope. After all, if the time is not now then we may have a few long centuries in front of us.

tsunami on my mind

Like most citizens of the world, I find myself in this festive time of the year genuinely grief-stricken over the tragedy that has befell so many people who found themselves in the path of the Christmas Tsunami. That America must help in a tragedy of this magnitude is self-evident. I would like to add my call to those many others who have humbly plead for your contribution for the benefit of survivors.

Amazingly, however, there has been some argument over the nature and degree of assistance we should provide for tsunami relief and that argument has spawned in the messageboards an important debate on what are our obligations as global citizens. Ever the critic of modern American society, this Curmudgeon unsurprisingly weighed in to advocate the moral obligation for the extraordinarily wealthy to help the extraordinarily poor, and to lament the woeful American contributions of the past. To make a very long story short, using rough numbers I calculated that by dedicating modest resources-one percent of our GDP-to global poverty, we would be able to spend approximately $1,000 per reachable hungry person in the World.

One thousand dollars is a lot of assistance for people on the brink of death from starvation.

Sadly, most Americans assume we are doing far more than what we are. If asked how much assistance we are giving, I’m guessing most Americans would pick a figure well in excess of the one-tenth of one percent we actually give. And that one-tenth of one percent includes a lot of aid that properly would not be considered “aid” by most people.

What prompts my surplus written rage today is not this woeful state of affairs: I’ve been fulminating over that for quite some time. What stirred me up this time was a New York Post commentary by John Podhoretz entitled It’s About The Tragedy – Not More Bush-Bashing. Podhoretz therein chides those who have been critical of this Administration’s response and America’s historical lack of generosity for not having a proper respect for the dead. A proper respect for the dead, in Mr. Poderhoretz’s opinion, would have been to wait at least a week before “making use of the tsunami to complain about U.S. government spending on ‘development aid’”.

The American people’s gallingly short attention span does not give us that luxury.

Podhoretz, being a newspaper man, should know as well as anyone about the American people’s eagerness to always move on to a new and more exciting topic. As I write, the tsunami stories are already slipping in the headlines. Increasing body counts are becoming just more old stale news much like the reporting of American and Iraqi deaths in occupied Iraq. Tragic calamities such as this are about the only time you can get the attention of We the People.

The window of opportunity is exceedingly short: the NFL play-offs loom large.

That American “generosity” sits at about one-tenth of our GDP should have been a big story long before now. Those of us who have tried to raise the point in the past have generally been laughed off the stage and more often then not called ugly names. Forgive us then for trafficking in the misery of so many people: we have just gotten a little desperate to be heard.

ARE YOU PAYING ATTENTION NOW?